Annie Taunga – Behind the scenes at Weta Digital

Annie Taunga - VFX Department Manager - Image supplied by Weta Digital

The Lord of the Rings holds a special place in Annie Taunga’s heart; it was her first visual effects project and the first time she saw her name in credits.  

The series would go on to net thirteen Oscar nominations and four Academy Awards, including Best visual effects. 

Taunga was originally offered an interview, in 1998, for a production assistant position with Weta Digital, while she was studying for a postgraduate degree in library and information systems. 

Having already completed a Bachelor of Arts in theatre and film, with a keen interest in creative arts, Taunga decided to halt her studies and take up the position.  

Gandalf the Grey approaches Minas Tirith – Image supplied by Weta Digital

“We all worked so incredibly hard on all three films concurrently, everybody mucked in and there was a real sense of community as the group was so small. It was great as we all learned a lot and did a variety of roles, so I got to experience and interact with a lot of different departments – from onset to digital.” 

As the matte painting coordinator and production assistant for the art department’s reference, props, and digital production, Taunga particularly enjoyed working with the miniature props and costumes. “I got to go on set a lot to collect beautiful handmade costumes, jewellery, maquettes, and miniatures for our digital artists to reference. It was a great way to learn how a film was made and to collaborate with lots of different filmmakers”.

The beginning

A theatre and film buff throughout her teenage years, Taunga remembers visiting films and plays and musicals with her mum regularly. “I joined the Little Theatre in New Plymouth and back then, other than sports, there wasn’t a lot to do other than go to the movies.”

Her creative streak meant that she walked straight out of school to Auckland Technical Institute’s Journalism School. From there she studied Te Reo Māori for a year then went on to begin a degree in law, theatre, and film at Victoria University.

“I found law quite dry and tedious so pulled out halfway through the first year to concentrate fully on theatre and film.”

The late 90’s in Wellington was a wonderful time for live theatre and film. “We had a great time performing, directing, and studying with the vibrant community of actors, directors, and mentors.”

During this time she watched many women-directed New Zealand-made films “by the likes of Merata Mita, Gaylene Preston and of course Jane Campion.”

Just like Mita, Preston, and Campion, Taunga was a working mum with aspirations to create beautiful films while raising a family. 

“I don’t believe having babies should be a barrier to women continuing or advancing their careers.”  As a young mum, she was fortunate enough to have strong whanau support and was able to juggle her creative work with bringing up a young son. “I struggled when my son was very young with mother’s guilt over the time I didn’t spend with him, but I truly believe in spending quality time with your kids. I was lucky to have my mum and sisters play a big part in helping raise him, as well as his dad’s side of the whanau.”

With over twenty years working with Weta, Taunga has noticed more women are working in visual effects, but there is still “a lack of women in leadership and senior management roles, which needs to change,” she says. 

“There is a gender gap, that is not just exclusive to VFX, but is definitely prevalent in the industry”.

She believes the answer to this is encouraging women to enter roles that have been stereotypically male-dominated in the past. “The more young women who are given the opportunity and empowerment to apply and learn in those roles, the better.

I always tell young women and myself to take a seat at the table. I think women need to stop doubting themselves and put themselves first.”

Weta Digital 

Thanos in Avengers Endgame Image supplied by Weta Digital

“I love a lot of things about my job but it always comes back to the people,” says Taunga. 

“I wouldn’t want to get out of bed to work with people that don’t inspire and encourage me daily. Of course, the films and shows we work on are fabulous, but at the end of the day, if the team wasn’t as great as it is I would not have stayed as long.”

Weta Digital employs 1,400 people and was first founded in 1993, by Peter Jackson, Richard Taylor, and Jamie Selkirk, to produce digital FX for the 1994 NZ film, Heavenly Creatures

Since then, VFX technology has come a long way, with artwork so lifelike, it looks like a documentary, rather than a piece of digital artwork. A recent piece of animation, Meerkat showcases the talent of the digital FX team at Weta, working with Unreal Engine to produce artwork that simulates and renders high-quality hair, fur, and feathers, bringing a lifelike appeal to the story.

Weta Digital was also responsible for famous scenes such as the battle that plays out in the Avenger’s compound for the 2019 movie Avengers Endgame. According to a statement from Weta Digital, the work on the movie includes “the biggest-ever battle in the MCU and almost every hero and villain unleashing their full potential.”

Alita: Battle Angel – Image supplied by Weta Digital

In the 2019 American cyberpunk action film, Alita: Battle Angel, Weta created 40 computer graphics characters with modern animation techniques that captured realistic facial features in extraordinary detail. 

Working in VFX

Taunga currently manages a team of 18 facial motion animators and works alongside the Special Projects team on a diverse range of projects. “My days are never the same. Working alongside our Head of Department, I oversee all the resourcing, bidding, and casting for our team on a diverse range of projects that span both film and episodic.”

She says that the secret behind her success is her openness to change and ability to work long hours. “Film and visual effects hours are not 9 to 5 pm, Monday to Friday. You have to be open to change and learn new ways of doing things. Be yourself and learn to tell your story in a way that is uniquely yours and own it,” she says. 

“In the fast-paced industry, the adage of ‘you don’t know who your boss will be tomorrow,’ really does ring true!”

Always busy and career-driven, Taunga is currently working on the Avatar sequels. “I am also working on personal writing projects, including a children’s story about my pet pig Albert, which might turn into a short animation. I’m also hoping to complete a book of poetry, although it’s taking a while!”

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